Getting to Know A River

Photo of Ruth in her winter gear on a cold cay on the bridge to Pike Island at Fort Snelling State Park with the river in the background.

#5hike, #6hike, #8hike, #9hike and #10hike of my 52 Hike Challenge

#5 Pike Island Trail, Fort Snelling State Park
#6 Long Meadow Unit, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge
#8 Long Meadow Unit, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge
#9 Snelling Lake and Pike Island Trail, Fort Snelling State Park
#10 Long Meadow Unit, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Many of the Minnesota River Valley area including Fort Snelling State Park, the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding area.

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time hiking along the Mississippi and Minnesota River Valley lately. For people who live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, these two rivers are part of our collective sense of place. They wind through the cities and meet at Fort Snelling State Park. The confluence of the two rivers is sacred ground to the Mde-wa-kan-ton-wan Dakota and other indigenous peoples. It is considered the birthplace of their ancestors. The land holds both the powerful origin story and a less savory US-Dakota War of 1862. People have lived in their area for at least 12,000 years.

We’re fortunate that much of the river valleys has been protected as park spaces for us to enjoy. The proximity for me is sometimes a challenge because they are so readily available. I tend to like to visit new places each time I hike for variety. But in the last month or so I’ve been limited on time to get to places that I’ve not hiked before. So I remind myself by visiting these parks that they are continually changing with the seasons and weather. I’m also starting to pay closer attention to the significance they hold in the history of the geography and people who’ve called these places home. It’s a continual learning process for me that I feel I’ve just scratched the surface of. I’ve provided links I’m exploring myself below. I know there are more so please share yours in the comments.

Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge

It wasn’t until I started hiking that I became aware that the Mississippi riverfront is land that is managed by various national and state agencies. The Mississippi National River and Recreation area covers hundreds of miles of shoreline, trails, channels and islands that are home to countless species of wildlife and thousands of years of cultural histories. The section of the refuge I’ve been exploring these last few hikes is located on the edge of Bloomington, MN. It’s a gem of space.

My visits to the Long Meadow Lake Unit have started at the various trailheads located approximately 3-5 miles apart from one another. Several of the main thoroughfares of the city end at these trailheads. And, of course, there is the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, tucked in an odd spot just south of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport and Fort Snelling Cemetery. From the visitor center is access to the Long Meadow Lake Trail.

The trails offer relatively flat hiking and are a perfect place to explore in winter, whether on foot or snowshoes. I’ve explored nearly 20 miles of trails between the access points and I know I haven’t covered it all. If you’ve just got a few hours, I’d recommend exploring out-and-back from any of the trailheads or visitor center.

For folks with a long day stretching ahead and interest in tackling some milage, start at the visitor center and hike to the Lyndale Avenue trailhead and then loop back to the visitor center almost all the way on the Bluff Trail. Just be sure to cross the Olde Cedar Avenue Bridge Trail so you can head back up the Long Meadow Lake Trail to the Visitor Center. I made the mistake of trying to follow the Bluff Trail all the way. It doesn’t get you there. This route will have you covering between 12 and 14 miles total.

As winter turns to spring, be sure to check with the park via phone or on the web about trail conditions. Parts or all of the trail can be under water in the spring and into the summer due to flooding. No matter the season, if you’re a hiking birder, this trail system will provide you ample opportunity to get some ornithology under your belt.

Fort Snelling State Park

I’ve written about Fort Snelling State Park before because it’s so close to home for me and it’s a beautiful park. Each time I visit I find myself looking for the deer and turkey that reside in the park. There are places within the park I’m almost certain I’ll find them. I’ve spent most of my hikes in the last year or so on the Pike Island Trail. Minnesota Hiking Club members can hunt for the password as they hike it. I love hiking the island because I know exactly how long it will take me in nearly every weather and trail condition.

Yet again, visiting so often makes it easy to get into a routine and not partake in the other equally special trails that are in the park. Several of them see less traffic, which is unfortunate because they have just as much to offer. On my most recent visit I decided to hike the park from a completely different perspective. I parked at the Park Office just inside the entrance to the park about an hour before dark. From this spot, I took the Snelling Lake Trail that wraps along the western border of the park, taking hikers under the flight path of the airport. Literally right under planes landing and taking off the bluff above the trail.

I’d cross country skied this trail many years ago, but had remembered it to be icy so I’d always driven deeper into the park toward Pike Island. This time, being on this side of the park, I was rewarded by crossing paths with a portion of the park’s deer herd. It wasn’t long before I was on the trail connecting with the Visitor Center and Pike Island. From there, I headed out on the winter hiking/snowshoeing trail that cuts down the middle of the island. With the rapidly approaching darkness, I decided to turn back about halfway across the island.

Watching the sun set and knowing the park well enough to find my way by the light reflecting from the snow was wonderful. I had the trial to myself. The quiet of the island in particular was magical. As I made my way back to my car, I followed the trail that parallels the entrance road. Again, with the trail to myself, I was able to enjoy the nightfall and considered that if I was going to get comfortable hiking at night, I’d rather do it on a trail I know well. This was the perfect way to remind myself that hiking on a winter night is a special experience.

Do you have a favorite river trail? Have you hiked at night? Share your experiences with me by commenting below! And be sure to leave me other suggestions for resources about the Mississippi and Minnesota River Valley areas. I’ll add them to the list.

GEAR: Oboz Women’s Bridger 7″ Insulated Waterproof, Yak Trax Diamond Grip Microspikes, Patagonia Womens Down Sweater Jacket, Marmot Kompressor Pack, SPOT GEN3 Satellite GPS Messenger, Dueter Dirtbag, Kula Cloth, Leki Lhasa Lite AS trekking poles. Want to know more about my gear selections? Head on over to Gear & Gadgets.

Next Post Preview: Winter isn’t quite over yet and having boots that keep your feet warm and dry is important to keep you outside. I’ll share my thoughts on my winter boot of choice.

References and Resources

Learn more about the history of this area by checking the links below. I don’t assume to know all the resources or stories and acknowledge my white privelige in sharing these. If I’ve missed a resource, please, share it in the comments. We all have much to learn about the history of our public lands before colonization and I look forward to help in sharing it.
The Dakota People and Bdote
Fort Snelling State Park
Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge – National Park Service

Photo of a group of hikers on a sunny day in a field heading towards a wooded area. The photographer has taken the photo from behind the group.

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